'This unit is definitely not 100%': Audio recordings of worried engineer played at Lac-Mégantic trial

The judge and jury at the Lac-Mégantic trial heard several revealing audio recordings Tuesday, including one of locomotive engineer Thomas Harding reporting problems with his lead locomotive on the eve of the 2013 rail disaster.

'We'll check it in the morning,' controller told Tom Harding, who relayed serious concerns about locomotive

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-Megantic, Que., on July 6, 2013. On Tuesday, the trial of three former MMA workers heard audio recorded on the eve of the disaster. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) locomotive engineer Tom Harding voiced repeated concerns about the locomotive he was driving toward Lac-Mégantic the day before the July 2013 rail tragedy.

Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas and jurors heard audio recordings of conversations between Harding and the MMA railway traffic controller (RTC) Tuesday.

Harding, 56, is one of three former MMA employees charged with criminal negligence causing 47 deaths in connection with the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, along with rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53.

"With five locomotives, I should be doing 22 or 23 mph," Harding can be heard telling the RTC, after reporting that he was only moving at 12 mph.

Harding also contacted the RTC once he arrived in Nantes, 12 kilometres northwest of Lac-Mégantic, and told him he turned four of the five locomotives off and applied the handbrakes.

"But I have to tell you, I worked it pretty damn hard," he told the RTC. "I've been here ten minutes maybe; it's smoking excessively now, going back and forth, black smoke, and changes to white sometimes," he said. 

The American rail traffic controller, who identified himself as Dave, responded, "That's all we can do, Tom. We'll check it in the morning, diagnose it."

Fire on the locomotive

About an hour after Harding arrived in Nantes on the night of July 5, 2013, a fire broke out on the lead locomotive. 

The jury heard another audio recording of RTC Richard Labrie, based in Farnham, Que., receive a call from a 911 dispatcher, informing him of the blaze.

"Are you serious?" Labrie replied, sounding incredulous.

"That's a fuel train," he said, with concern in his voice. 

He later got confirmation the fire was only on the locomotive and firefighters had put it out.

Harding told not to worry, to go to bed

Labrie was then heard calling Harding at his hotel, informing him of the fire.

"Is there someone there to take care of it?" asked Harding. 

[The train] won't bother anyone, at least not tonight.- 911 dispatcher Gilles Bertrand, reporting back to rail traffic controller Richard Labrie

Labrie told him the firefighters had put out the fire, and an MMA track maintenance foreman, Jean-Noel Busque, then checked on the train.

"Do I need to go up there?" asked Harding.

"Call me back," he told Labrie. 

"No, no, no," replied Labrie. "Go to bed."

Listen to that audio below:

Tom Harding learns of locomotive fire

5 years ago
Duration 2:01
This audio recording is an exchange between the locomotive engineer and rail traffic controller Richard Labrie after the fire at Nantes on the eve of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

The jury then heard a recording of a 911 dispatcher, Gilles Bertrand, calling Labrie. 

"You'll be reassured," Bertrand told Labrie.

"[The train] won't bother anyone, at least not tonight," he said.

"I'm glad the fire wasn't a little further back," Labrie responded. "There is 10,000 tonnes of crude oil in the back of that."

Bertrand ended the call saying, "on our end everything is OK; the intervention is finished."

'Everything is excellent'

Earlier Tuesday, the ex-MMA foreman, Busque, testified he'd been sent to check on the train in Nantes after firefighters extinguished the initial blaze on the locomotive.

Busque told the Sherbrooke court  it was inconceivable to him that the train could move on its own. 

He said he called the Farnham RTC on duty, Labrie, and told him the fire was out, telling him, "Everything is excellent."

Busque told the court he didn't check the train's handbrakes, although he acknowledged having had some training about how they worked.

As a track foreman, he said, it wasn't part of his job. 

Harding 'risked his life'

Busque ended his testimony Tuesday by saying the firefighters he spoke with after the disaster recounted to him how Harding had donned firefighter gear and started unhooking undamaged tanker cars from those which were burning after the derailment in downtown Lac-Mégantic, to stop them from exploding.

"They said he risked his life,"  said Busque.

The jury will hear the remainder of the audio recordings Wednesday.


  • A previous version of this story reported the three defendants are charged with 47 counts each of criminal negligence causing death — one count for each person who died in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. In fact, prior to the trial, the Crown simplified the charge to a single count each of criminal negligence causing 47 deaths. The change has no bearing on the criteria used by the jury to render its verdict or on the possible sentence.
    Jan 15, 2018 6:49 PM ET